Back in 2013, Jonathan Hickman launched his brand new creator title East of West, garnering much acclaim from the reading public and critics alike. The following year, the comic received nominations for Best Writer, Best Continuing Series, Best Artist, and Best Colorist from the Eisner Awards (unfortunately winning none of them). That’s quite a lot of praise and honor surrounding this book.
My thoughts on Jonathan Hickman’s superhero works are rather controversial, but besides one issue of The Manhattan Projects (which was dull), I have never really tried any of his creator owned works before. Does his work fare better when he’s playing with his own characters and universe? Does this work deserve all of the praise it gets? Most importantly, is it good?
East of West Vol. 1: The Promise (Image Comics)
Written by: Jonathan Hickman
Drawn by: Nick Dragotta
Things didn’t exactly go down in the American Civil War like expected. The war went on and on and on between the North and South; even the Native Americans got in on the fighting. Then, after years and years of fighting, a huge comet collided with the Earth and the people saw it as a sign to end. In 1908, America was divided up into the Seven Nations of America. On the same day, two figures from different walks of life, Elijah Longstreet and Red Cloud, told of something big on the horizon before they died. Several years later, another big figure dies, delivering out another message. When all three accounts were combined, they came together and created something called The Message. It is the story—or perhaps an actual account—of how the world will end.
Flash forward to 2064 and three mysterious figures arise in some remote location. These are the reincarnation (or something like that at least) of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who happen to be down a member. This figure is Death himself, who is out and about with two odd figures. He’s out for revenge against the people who wronged him the past and it doesn’t matter who they are. He’ll deliver them their end.
Go home Death, you’re drunk!
First thing to note before we begin, I’ve only read the first volume of the series as of this review. I have not read any further, so any complaints or things I took issue with could have already been addressed in the next two volumes. Keep that in mind and with that said, I will say that the first volume of East of West is good, but flawed. I can definitely see the appeal of it and that there are certainly things to like, but it’s not perfect.
The story is probably the strongest aspect of the comic. Hickman crafts an interesting western/sci-fi tale here so far with some very strong world and mythology building. With the mysterious introduction of the Horsemen (or perhaps Horsechildren would be better) and the origin of the new America & Message, it’s quite captivating and instantly grabs your attention, wanting to know more. Then the following scene in the bar and Death’s introduction builds up an interesting mystery to add to your curiosity. Finally, by the end of the first issue and seeing Death’s goal, the comic leaves you on a great hook and last line to encourage you to stick around. In fact, most of the issues have great hooks to them that encourage you to read more and frankly, shouldn’t every book have that?
However, this is where things start to… veer a little bit. Analyzing and looking closer at the story starts to open some holes within it, whether it be minor or big. Some moments can make you tilt your head in some of the characters’ motivations and actions, like why do the leaders of the Seven Nations of America want to bring about the end of the world (not all of them do, mind you, but besides for following the unclear “Message”, I do not see nor understand what the ones that do want the end get out of it)? How did Death get into Chamberlain’s office without anyone noticing or him killing anyone? Why exactly did the general population not suspect a single thing when several people in line for the Presidential seat are all offed in the exact same way?
Also rather puzzling is “The Message” itself. People seem to follow and believe in it, about how it’ll bring about the end of the world and such while also having some apparent prophecies as well. That’s pretty much the gist what we actually know about The Message and it feels purposely left in the dark to the audience—and not in the way for dramatic purposes, but more as a way for plot convenience. It feels more like a tool for the writer to pull out a plot point from out of nowhere because it is in The Message and we, the audience, don’t know what it is about. It feels more obvious and cheap than most plot devices. Of course, I’m sure some things will be discussed at later point and none of these things take away too much from the overall experience.
I hope she’ll do. The next was the Secretary of Agriculture and that person is just a weirdo.
On the character side of things, the book is a bit of a mixed bag. The lead, or at the person who gets the most attention in the first volume, is Death and he is a revenge seeker. We don’t know exactly what happened to him in the past or what brought upon this betrayal, but whatever it was, it was something that really got to him badly. He’s an interesting figure to watch, and you want to know more about since he’s practically a force of nature. But at this point, he is not particularly memorable personality-wise. Quite incredible things happen to him and he is one of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but honestly, he is rather bland as an individual. He simply seeks revenge and is on the hunt for the people who fucked him over in the past, but that’s really it at this point. The only time he feels interesting or, for a lack of better term, human, is in the final issue of the volume with Xiaolian, his former (?) wife, and trying to reconnect with her. I honestly have no idea what caught his attention about her in comparison to every other woman he has encountered before, outside of ignoring his orders, but you work with what you got.
Speaking of which, there is Xiaolian herself, one of the heirs to the House of Mao, one of the Seven Nations. Xiaolian… is odd to me. Her past is given out in a fast paced montage, so you don’t really get to see much of relationship between her and Death or even see what her family life was like before everything. She’s someone touted as conquering death (I guess you can say having sex with Death can be considered that), she doesn’t really do much outside of being a damsel in distress who only gets out of her situation because her family is incredibly stupid and also being a character who changes tunes quite a bit. As such, she doesn’t feel all that special or memorable as a character. There’s just a lot of talk about her being something big with these very brief, miniscule flashes of her fighting, so her being special isn’t all that convincing or believable. Hopefully she gets better as time goes on, especially now that her family is dead and she is in charge of things.
The rest of the characters have similar issues regarding interesting traits. The two characters that follow Death around (I don’t even believe we got their names) have some interesting powers, but they just follow him around for unclear reasons. I would assume it has something to do with what happened to Death in the path, but that is unclear. The three other Horsemen have an interesting designs to them and seem strict on following the The Message, but they do not differentiate themselves from one another outside of their bloodlust and interest in wanting to kill Death. The same complaint extends to most of the leaders of the Seven Nations of America, with three exceptions. They are interested as well in following The Message, but that’s about it at this point.
The ones who are different from the others are Bel Solomon, Andrew Archibald Chamberlain, and Premier Mao (There is also Hu Mao, his daughter, but there’s really nothing much to her). Mao is interested in following The Message like the rest and is pretty blandish, but only stands out because we see he’s interested in protecting his family’s legacy and heritage as the leader of his nation. That’s pretty much it, but it is something. Bel Solomon is the most “moral” member of the leaders and is probably the most likeable character in the whole story so far. He’s done some terrible things in the past and he fully acknowledges it. However, he also realizes when things have gone too far and even if it doesn’t redeem him in the end for everything he has caused, he’ll still try. Then finally there is Chamberlain and he is perhaps the most interesting character so far, because he feels the most three dimensional of the cast. He was all for bringing about the end of the world in the past, but after gaining so much power and wealth, he realizes he’d rather stay alive and hold onto what he has. He is fascinating to watch to see how he manipulates and interacts with others. He is sure as hell not likeable and very selfish, but you can’t keep but want to see and learn more about him. He’s ultimately a great villain at this stage and hopefully will be sticking around. So ultimately, the comic so far only really has two characters with depth to them and hopefully that changes given the amount of potential seen here.
Chamberlin be trollin’ with Death.
Writing-wise, the book is good with some hiccups here and there. The pacing is reasonably good and each scene serves some sort of purpose in some way or another, instead of feeling padded out or decompressed. The sci-fi contains some interesting visuals & aesthetics, though it feels like there are some missed opportunities, like how we don’t ever really get a good look at a futuristic city. Yeah, it’s a western and all, but it couldn’t hurt at least see a bit more of the future outside of the standard flying vehicles and the battle suits/armor that look like they came straight out of Japanese mech manga. The transitions are fine for the most part, but there are times where a scene just abruptly ends without any lead-in or any cleverness to it. There are a lot of good twists and turns to the book that are quite interesting and can easily pull you in if you ever start fading.
The weakest parts of the writing are areas that Hickman seems to struggle the most with from experience with his Avengers and New Avengers: His dialogue and the emotional aspect of a book. The dialogue often doesn’t sound natural or believable. Some exchanges sound overly flowery and dramatic, some sound stunted, some sound dry as sand with no emotion, and others have a lot of exposition dropped… when the characters should already know this. The same extends with the narration at points as well. Then there is the emotional aspect and quite frankly, this book doesn’t have a lot of it. You never can really feel for a lot of these characters, since all of their desires or interests are vague or not given much focus and you can’t feel the relationships between characters since they are often glanced over or not shown that much, like with the Mao Family and Death & Xiaolin. Their scenes feel like they should have more punch or impact to them, but don’t because of that lack of attention. Plus, not many of them are likeable or have much in the way of personality traits, so it makes it a bit harder to connect with them as well. These aspects do hold this comic back at a bit and hopefully, Hickman can develop and work on these areas some more.
Finally, there is the artwork by Nick Dragotta (pencils and inking I assume) and Frank Martin (coloring) and this book is solid in that department. There are a lot of good things about it, but it has some flaws as well. Dragotta does a good job depicting and designing the chracters; everyone has a very unique outfit from one another that helps establish the areas they are from and makes them stand out a bit more (though I swear some of these battle armors are from Japanese mangas I’ve read), while the characters themselves are distinguishable to a certain point. Some characters kind of blend together in the facial department and it’s thanks to their outfits that they’re easy to tell apart. The expressions are a mixed bag. Some looks characters give can often paint a very good picture of what they are feeling or tell you a lot about the individual, while others…. Leave a bit to be desired. There’s some cross-eyed looking individuals at points and also very neutral & dull looking reactions that come across as being more goofy than serious.
The rest of the art is solid, though. The layouts are good and flow well enough. The scenery and settings are decent, though there are some times where there are blank and empty backgrounds that really stand out. The action is intense and gory as hell, with some very impressive and creative imagery (though some effects are lost when it looks more like people are bleeding oil all over the place instead of blood). The coloring by Martin is good as well, able to capture some nice moodier and quieter scenes in areas and he’s able to do a nice fuzzier & lighter style with the colors to depict the flashbacks. It’s good work overall.
But before we do that… I need to take a nap. I’m barely awake as it is!
Is It Good?
East of West Vol. 1 is an interesting start to this series, one that shows a lot of potential and presents up a rather engaging tale. It’s easy to see why it’s garnered a lot of attention and love from critics and fans alike, but it is not without its faults. At this stage, there are questions that need to be addressed sooner rather than later, characters in need of attention and development, and in general it’s in need of a bit more polish in the writing. It’s not Eisner Nominee worthy from just judging this single volume, but I’ll be continuing on from here and looking into more of the series to see where it goes.